Early detection of schizophrenia

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Detecting and treating schizophrenia early, perhaps even before symptoms arise, could lead to better therapeutic outcomes. Studies have demonstrated differences in social function and cognition among people who later develop symptoms of schizophrenia, but less is known about pre-morbid temperament and personality.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Investigator Jennifer Blackford and colleagues have studied inhibited temperament—a tendency to respond to novelty with wariness, fear, or caution—in patients with schizophrenia compared to healthy controls.

Jennifer Blackford smiling

Jennifer Blackford, Ph.D.

“I became interested in this work after attending a schizophrenia research meeting and learning about the clinical histories of new participants,” said Blackford. “I noticed that a subset of the individuals with schizophrenia were very shy and cautious as children. This was especially interesting for me because my research program was focused on inhibited temperament, an early trait characterized by wariness and avoidance of novelty, especially new people. I was interested in inhibited temperament because it confers substantial risk for the development of anxiety disorders. So I became curious about whether inhibited temperament might also be associated with risk for schizophrenia.”

Blackford worked with a post-doctoral fellow in her lab to collect retrospective information about temperament and current measures of anxiety. After analysis, the team discovered that inhibited temperament scores were significantly higher in patients with schizophrenia compared to the control group.

“Furthermore, the patients with higher inhibited temperament also had higher anxiety and depression scores, experienced higher degrees of distress, and reported lower satisfaction with their quality of life,” said Blackford. “This discovery has two important implications. First, it will be important to implement screening efforts to identify high-risk inhibited children and implement some early preventative interventions to reduce risk for anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Second, this finding provides an exciting new avenue for potential treatments; patients with an inhibited temperament will likely benefit from treatments targeting anxiety, distress, and depression, in addition to their psychosis symptoms.”

The investigators have published these findings in Psychiatry Research.

This research was supported by the Charlotte and Donald Test Fund, the Jack Martin MD Research Professorship in Psychopharmacology, the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Genotype/Phenotype Project, and grants from the National Institutes of Health (MH070560, MH102266, TR000445).

A version of this story originally appeared in VUMC Reporter.

Leigh MacMillan is an information officer with VUMC News and Communications.

Courtney Taylor is director of VKC Communications.

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